The public sector is vital to N Ireland, but it needs new blood and added vibrancy…

I have a strange feeling as I come to the end of 40 years working in the public sector and the uncertainty that a pension and life without institutionalised working will bring. Although being in the public sector, my pension could be much worse and will it be index-linked.

This will also prove my dear mother right 40 years ago in telling me that getting a job in the Civil Service will set me up for a great pension. As an 18-year-old, I had no thoughts of pensions, job security or benevolent funds. I got a job which allowed me to work hard, had flexible working patterns and when I went home could leave it all behind. I would go out for a few pints with my mates and save to buy a car, but only after my dear mother got her 50% from my wage packet. I have been watching the McGuigan/Frampton court battle to see if I have a good case for compensation after all these years; however, I would prefer to take on Frampton than my mother in fairness.

Through the 40 years, I have noticed great change in the public sector. It has had its ups and downs. In the 1980s, we appeared to be very much in the front line of every direct rule initiative, some positive and some that seemed to put us in the legitimate target grouping. It was no fluke that significant Civil Service offices were relocated to Belfast and Derry City Centres. The main reason was economic but some of us also suspected a second motive to help prevent bombings. It didn’t work of course and resulted in civil servants spending more time in pubs during bomb scares than was good for us. I also recall we always had something to celebrate in work, mostly births and marriages, sometimes in that order, 21st birthday parties etc., we had a young and very vibrant workforce.

In the 1990s, I recall continually bumping into friends who had left school with 2 CSEs and were earning twice as much money as I was making, and quite a few claiming unemployment benefits as well. By that stage, I was married, had a few kids, a massive mortgage and the public sector trap had been sprung.

The naughties brought their issues and challenges and the outworkings from the Cameron/ Osbourne economic policies would see the public sector change forever. Seeing numbers employed reduced and recruitment non-existent.

The Public Sector is not only the largest employer in Northern Ireland, but also the biggest individual sector. The last time I checked the NICS had no one under the age of 25 employed by them. The work parties we now have, albeit over Zoom, are retirement parties. Gone is the young, vibrant Civil Service, we are older, we carry the war wounds, and we are fully institutionalised. To say we are risk-averse would be an understatement, We are largely there to implement the policies and wishes of local politicians, taking forward vanity projects and us having to take the blame when they go wrong.

The Voluntary Exit Scheme, as it was introduced by the NI Executive, was a big nail in the coffin of the public sector. It was not introduced under any recognised business principles, it was pure cost savings and those who were cheapest were let go. The lasting impact is that it was not the person made redundant, it was their post and the funding for that post, so we could not recruit or backfill positions. In some branches, this saw a reduction of 30% in staffing numbers.

There has been a recent focus on NICS sick and attendance records. One of the key benefits of working in the public sector is paid sick leave. There is no doubt that a minority abuse this, and the processes in place make it difficult for managers to tackle this without ending up at an industrial tribunal. However, the system is now totally unbalanced because of the profile of the workforce. The young, vibrant workforce is now in their 50s, and we are all at the age when we are more susceptible to ill health. This is what is increasing the perceived levels of sickness. Illnesses often require more medical interventions and take longer to recover. The policy of 6 mths full pay is what ensures mortgages and other bills are paid.

There is also the factor that the public sector has always employed a large percentage of females in its workforce, and rightly so. The Irish North and South are a caring bunch. However, most of these caring responsibilities fall to the women in our society. Whether it is looking after children who need care or elderly who need care, it mostly falls to the females of the family to oblige and care for elderly relatives. If that female member of the family works in the public sector, this is more and more likely to be the case. “Sure our Jinny can look after granny when she gets out of hospital, she can go sick and will get paid”. At present, I have two staff out sick because they have to care for elderly relatives. While at face value, this is a public sector issue, in my view it is not, it is a societal issue. I am sure more people reading this have experienced the “female carer” scenario. It is one that social services recognise, without it they would be inundated, it is one that hospitals recognise as again without this care they would have bed blockers across the system. It is also one that most families recognise.

This is more often than not offset by people such as myself who have rarely taken more than a couple of day’s sickness over a lifetime of service, so it is swings and roundabouts.

The public sector is vital to N Ireland, but it needs new blood, new and added vibrancy. The issue of carers and sick leave does need to be addressed. However, this needs to be done in an understanding and sympathetic way as caring should be nourished and supported, addressed by society and not just the public sector.

So with a few days to go, none of the above will be my problem to address as a manager. I see retirement as an opportunity; perhaps my mother can offer advice for my next 40 years.

Photo by mwitt1337 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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